Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Laundry Scene: Creating Fiction from Reality

(Note: I recently cut this entry down because it was so much longer than the others. If you'd like to read the longer, more detailed version, please e-mail me at or post a comment here and I will be glad to send it your way.)

Some readers have asked me how I created the scenes and characters in Just the Way You Are. First, let's start with how I did not create them. A natural impulse of someone trying to write fiction might be to write about something that really happened and change the names and maybe a few details, and call it fiction. This is how I wrote one of my very first novels, one that will never ever see the light of day. (NEVER EVER!) I wrote it when I was fourteen and bored with my life. The story was about a girl who looked suspiciously like me, acted suspiciously like me, lived in a house in suspiciously the same location as mine, and had a family suspiciously like mine. Then she had experiences that were strangely just like mine were. I just changed all the names of the characters. Sometimes I got really creative and changed the hair color, too. Oh, and the other main difference was that the guys the main character liked (who were identical to the guys I liked in my own life) actually liked her back.

This is a good way to get started in writing, but it isn’t fiction until you start deviating from real life. Really writing fiction is more complicated than changing a few details. The more I write, the better I get at completely creating scenes and situations and characters from scratch. (At least, I think I do.) But every writer still borrows details from reality every now and then.

I like to use the first scene I wrote with Catha/LaNae in Just the Way You Are as an example of a process you can go through, because the way I did it is very straightforward. The first scene I wrote with her was not the first chapter in the book. It was the one where Emmett is in her dorm room chatting with Mandy, and Catha/LaNae believes that he is actually there to visit her, since he had shown an interest in her before. Then it slowly dawns on her that he is chatting with Mandy because Mandy is the one he came to see.

But the first thing I started with was the other characters and the general idea of the story. I already knew about Emmett and his dating habits. I already knew Mandy the space-case roommate, because I’d previously written a short story about her. (Her story does not appear in the novel.) Neither of these were people I pulled from real life, by the way. They started much the way this scene did—with some basic ideas, and then watching them to see what happened. I drew the general situation from something similar that I experienced when I was in college. I thought that with the right starring character, it could be an interesting scene. And so, Catha/LaNae was born.

The conversation material concerning raisins came from a discussion I had in early high school with a Real Boy. I do not know why we talked about raisins. I don't remember what we said about them. But it made it into my journal, and it was something I could use later when I needed a ridiculous conversation for this scene.

So far we have snippets of a few different occasions in my life, plus three unique characters. The clincher of the scene comes when Catha/LaNae gathers up all her laundry, hoping to get Emmett’s attention because he will feel obligated to carry her load for her. Now, this is something she did on her own. It's a real thrill when you get your characters to a point where they just start acting independently of anything you have planned for them.

People who don’t write fiction often don’t understand this aspect of fiction writing, and probably wonder what mental issues we writers must have. For those of you who are more scientifically-minded, you can think of it almost like a formula. This happens to this character, and so she does…this. If it had been Jane or someone else in the same situation, she would have behaved differently. Try the same experiment with yourself: If you were in this situation, what would you do? Now put someone else you know in the same situation. They’d do something different, wouldn’t they? When you know your characters well enough, you know what they’ll do. Then it’s just a matter of writing it down.

But using details from life is something that a fiction writer can never entirely get away from. Our writing, no matter how vivid our imaginations, is a product of who we are, and we are products of the lives we live.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Time Mismanagement System

Lately I've been feeling like I'm not getting enough accomplished in a day. Actually, I feel that way quite often. When that feeling comes over me, the first thing I do is revamp my goals and time management system. Surely if I'm not getting enough done, then it must be due to problems with the system and not anything that I myself am doing wrong...right?

So yesterday I came up with yet another fantastic refinement on my system that I’m sure will be a winner. I've described it here in detail for you.

1) Pray for help. That way I have someone else to blame if it doesn’t work. ;-)

2) Write down on a big piece of paper everything that’s been nagging at me that I need to do.

3) Go through my schedule for the next month and identify more things I need to do. Write these tasks on my paper also.

4) Go through my goals and find yet more things I’m not doing that are making me feel guilty. Write these things on my paper.

5) Copy each item onto a new paper, this time dividing them into four categories:

  • A-level items (important and urgent)
  • B-level items (important, but not urgent and could be put off, which means that I probably will until they become urgent)
  • B-level items that I’ve been putting off long enough that I feel incredible guilt over them and they are now almost as urgent as A-level items
  • new B-level items that could reasonably be put off several weeks so I don’t need to feel guilty over them yet.

6) Decide I’d rather have these pages in my day planner for easy reference instead of on big loose papers. So, after I’ve copied down all my items into one of the four categories, the next step is to spend several minutes cutting and punching paper to fit my day planner (because I’m out of paper and buying more would be too easy), and recopying my lists again.

7) Now that these pages fit my day planner, the next step is to take a weekly planner page and recopy all of the tasks again, distributing these items by day so days are more or less equally weighted and more urgent things are scheduled for earlier in the week.

8) Remember that I forgot to take my schedule into account when I distributed my task list over every day in the week. Go back over my schedule for the week and recopy the tasks again, making sure that more tasks are scheduled for the days I have fewer appointments.

9) Recopy tasks again into daily planner pages so I know what I'm supposed to do every day.

10) Buy a new pencil, since I've decimated the last one I had after recopying my task list in fifty different places.

11) After Day 1, panic because I didn’t get everything done that I needed to.

12) Repeat as needed.

So far it has been working well. I've gotten everything done on my list, except for the things that I looked at and decided I didn't feel like doing. Maybe I'll have to fix my system again next week, so I'll have a better chance of getting some of these other things done.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Seminary Woes

I'm the home study Seminary teacher in our ward, and we're hitting end-of-year crunch time. In home study you have to go through the assigned activities in the book on paper and turn them in to the teacher for a grade, sort of like homework. (Well, it makes sense, considering that it's home study Seminary.) But it's easy to put off doing the assignments, especially when you're busy with school, and our deadline is right around the corner. I'd heard that last year they'd had a chat room where they worked some of the assignments together, and that had worked well. (I was not the one teaching last year. This is why it was news to me.) Anyway, I thought it might get the students motivated a little, and give them a break from having to work through all those exercises themselves. So I figured out how to set up my own chat room, worked up a big involved schedule for us to work on the assignments during the next week, and called everyone to invite them to participate. (I was very proud of myself.)

The time for our chat arrived, and no one logged in! I guessed that no one was interested, and I went about my evening. Then about 20 minutes later I got a phone call from one of the guys who had been trying to log in, but couldn't get it to work. So I worked with him for several minutes, trying to get the problems solved for him. Then I got another phone call from another student in a similar situation.

The end result was, we spent the whole time trying to get the chat room to work, and it never did. Well, it did when I logged into it. My husband could log into it, too. But apparently no one else could. I feel bad that it took so much of their time that they COULD have been using to work the activities on their own! It seemed like such a good idea at the time I set it up.

But I really have to put in a plug for Seminary here. It is such a GREAT program! I graduated from home study Seminary myself in Clinton, Oklahoma, and I learned so much. In fact, much of my understanding of the scriptures and my testimony of the gospel stems directly from the time I spent plowing through those Seminary lessons. So keep at it, guys! It is so worth it in the end!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Translation Problems

I grew up in western Oklahoma in the midst of a bunch of “Okies.” Neither of my parents are from Oklahoma, so I didn’t pick up too much of an Oklahoma accent, except for a few things like short “e’s” being pronounced with a long “a” sound. I worked really hard on that one after I grew up and moved to Utah with my husband, actually. I had spent my life eating “aiggs” for breakfast, shaving my “laigs,” and thinking that Greg and Craig would be good names for twins because they rhymed.

I tried to overcome this tendency in Utah, so as to sound more like the natives. When I thought of eggs, I would mentally remind myself to pronounce them like “ehggs,” and not “aiggs.” It usually worked pretty well. When I went back to Oklahoma for my high school reunion a few years later, in fact, I suddenly discovered that all of my old friends had very pronounced Okie accents that I’d never noticed before.

I can’t comment much on strange accents in Utah. My dad is from Utah, and I grew up thinking that he sounded pretty normal. Some people probably think that Utahns sound pretty weird, but I am not one of them. But my sister in Oklahoma started making fun of me for pronouncing the word “mountain” with a Utah accent after I’d been there for a few years. Well, if you think about it, that really would make sense. People in Utah talk about mountains a lot more than people in Oklahoma do. The landscape in Oklahoma’s about as un-mountainy as you can get.

After spending nearly nine years in Utah, now we’re living in Wisconsin and facing new language challenges. One thing we’ve noticed is that sounds that we’d pronounce like “ow” are often pronounced here with more of a long “o” sound. So, in Wisconsin we don’t live in houses. We live in hoses. We don’t go “out and about.” Where we go sounds to us more like “oat in a boat.”

And then there’s the long “a” sound. Here in Wisconsin, words like “bag” and “flag” are pronounced with something of a long a sound, like “baig” and “flaig.” Which presents something of a problem for me. My mental translation processes that I worked so hard on in Utah really break down here, because the long “a” sound no longer necessarily represents an “e.”

For example, the first time I bought something at a grocery store in Wisconsin, the checker clearly asked me, “Wanna beg for that?” I stood there panicked for a few seconds as I wondered what she wanted me to do before she gave me what I thought I’d just paid for. Who knew what kind of strange customs they had here in this foreign land (Wisconsin)?

But I finally answered yes, hoping that was indeed the correct response to her question. And a few moments later, my purchases were happily riding home in the beg…or bag, or baig, or whatever it is.

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